The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled on May 27 to allow initiative petition 426, which deals with legislative redistricting reform, to advance to signature collection.
This is not the first time the Supreme Court has ruled on this proposal, according to court documents. In a previous lawsuit the court ruled that the legal summary, or gist, of the petition inadequately explained to the public what the proposal would actually change. Two days after that ruling, the gist was re-written and the petition re-filed.
Initiative petition 426 would establish a Citizens’ Independent Redistricting Commission for the purpose of redrawing legislative districts. This process occurs every 10 years following the census to reflect changes in population. Ordinarily, legislators themselves control the process of drawing these maps.
According to People Not Politician’s website, allowing legislators the power to redraw their own districts presents the opportunity for partisan gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing legislative maps in a manner that gives a particular party or politician an advantage. Spreading opposition voters across districts to dilute their impact, or compacting them into as few districts as possible are both common gerrymandering techniques.
Now that the courts have ruled that the new gist is sufficient, the petition will go back to the secretary of state, who would ordinarily assign a date to begin the 90-day signature collection process. However, an order issued by Secretary of State Michael Rogers on March 18 effectively paused signature collection for petitions due to the COVID-19 emergency.
Andy Moore, executive director of People Not Politicians, said his organization was preparing for the eventual signature collection effort.
“I think there is a way to do it safely,” Moore said. “It’ll be harder for sure.”
Moore said petition campaigns in other states were equipping signature collectors with full personal protective equipment, sanitizers, and disposable pens to minimize the possibility of viral transmission. In the meantime, he said the organization would be collecting donations to help with legal fees and prepare for signature collection.
“To do signature collection takes a lot of time and money, right?” Moore said. “You’ve got to buy pens and clipboards, and print all this stuff anyway. If you have to add PPE on top of that, that’s just a bigger deal.”
Moore said tying the pause on signature collection to the governor’s emergency order could delay signature collection longer than necessary. He said emergency declarations were often tied to federal funds, and allowed to linger longer than the actual emergency lasts.
According to court documents, the order preventing signature collection efforts has already been challenged and upheld by the state Supreme Court.
Amy Canton, Director of Executive Legislative Services with the secretary of state’s office, said the order could still be modified or revoked in its entirety. She said their office was looking into the issue.
Since the proposed changes to the redistricting process would directly affect state legislators, The O’Colly reached out to Stillwater’s legislators for comment on the issue.
Rep. Trish Ranson (D-Stillwater) said she understands the need for a stay on signature collection due to person-to-person contact required. She said she’s heard stories of politicians redrawing maps to disadvantage opponents, but has never participated in redistricting herself.
“It definitely benefits the party that is in control, and it helps to keep that party in control,” Ranson said.
She said she thinks the proposal would be to the benefit of both Republicans and Democrats in the long term.
“The pendulum swings when it comes to politics and beliefs,” Ranson said.
She said when that pendulum swings away from the majority party, they would be grateful to have an independent commission drawing competitive maps.
Rep. John Talley (R-Stillwater) said he can see where people would think Republicans have maneuvered the maps to give themselves an advantage.
“I’ve always heard about gerrymandering my whole life,” Talley said.
Talley said he had no issue with the proposal. He said if enough people sign the petition and support it on the ballot, then the changes should be made.
“I’ve seen both sides of people saying things, and I’m for total transparency,” Talley said. “If this will make it more transparent, if this will make it better for people to get into government, then I’m for that.”
He said the redistricting process is largely handled by the state senate. Talley said he had no desire to make any major changes to his district map and that he’s happy representing rural Payne County. He said he isn’t interested in redrawing his district to entrench himself in the seat.
“I’m not in this to stay in politics forever,” Talley said. “I think I’m supposed to serve right now, and then someday give it up to somebody else.”
In an email to The O’Colly, Sen. Tom Dugger (R-Stillwater) said the state constitution required both legislative chambers to oversee redistricting. He said the senate had already created a committee on redistricting.
“The Senate will conduct its redistricting process in a thorough, bipartisan, and professional manner,” the email reads.
The entire text of the petition is available at peoplenotpoliticians.org.